Kunefe, Kanafe, Middle Eastern Cheese Cake; Whatever you call it, it is dessert perfection.
Working during my college career as a tutor for international students from around the world has taught me two important things.
- Cultures are different. Make sure to embrace all the oddities of a multi cultural interaction, you just might learn something.
- The easiest way to make a meaningful connection with someone all starts with food
Besides being extremely rewarding and putting cash in my pocket, there was another unforeseen benefit. As much as I was teaching them about America and helping them with their English, they too were teaching me. They have given me years of cross-cultural interaction, a first hand lense into worlds I have never stepped foot in and an access point for prying out the delicious details of their homelands.
In our introductory meeting before starting the term, one of the first questions I ask is “What is your favorite dish that your mother made when you were growing up”? The reason I ask this is not only for getting the conversation started in an easy and accessible way, but to get a better understanding of what is important to them and what they hold dear as a food memory. I noticed that with my Saudi Arabian students I would continuously get the same answer no matter what part of the country they were from: Kunefe. I had never heard of Kunefe and knew absolutely nothing about it other than what their confusing definition gave me. They would always say it was great, but they could never truly explain it. “It’s like a Middle Eastern Cheesecake, It’s sweet and stringy like pizza but with thin dough on top“. “What could this mean”, I thought to myself? Could there really be a dish out there that you just have to try to fully understand? Was it the English that was the issue? I needed answers and I needed them now! I just simply couldn’t live with this incorrect image of some weird mutant New York Cheesecake with pistachios and Filo on top; it didn’t make sense; it couldn’t make sense.
I knew the second when I had a kitchen at my disposal that I would not only be attempting but successfully completing the mysterious dish of my dreams. A dish beloved equally by all Middle Eastern people I have ever met, and soon myself as well.
Kunefe itself isn’t too complicated. A combination of a simple syrup drizzled over kadayifi (filo resembling small noodles) layered with sweet sheep’s cheese. The complex part is getting the perfect sweetness between the cheese and the syrup as well as maintaining the crispy exterior of the filo without skimping on the that decadent sweet syrup.
My first and only attempt at making Kunefe went over with great success and I felt content. Unfortunately for me, something was still missing. Can you really be satisfied with recreating something you have never tasted before? I thought not.
It’s like painting a tree without knowing what a tree looks like. I was a blind artist lost in a cheesy nightmare.
I had to get to the source.
Finally, almost a year and a half of wandering the sweet cheese desert, I found my golden goose in the Tel Aviv shuk, the main market place. The second I stepped in the shuk I knew exactly where I was going. It only took a solid minute of scoping the various vender before I found a patron hocking delicious Mediterranean pastries. Finally! There it was sitting in front of me in all of its cheesy glory. A nice big piece made just for me, waiting for my outstretched arms to scoop it up like a kid in a candy store. It came on a huge sheet tray with nearly 50 pieces in total. I can only imagine how much it weighed but truthfully this was a gargantuan, a tasty giant. There was no time to waste. I bought the biggest piece I could, not surprisingly only about 2$. I closed my eyes and took my first bite.
Delicious, glorious, perfection.
Creamy, crispy, salty, sweet; a melange of flavor and texture leaving nothing else to be desired. My two year long journey was over. It only took thousands of miles of travel but the good things in life don’t come easily.